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Psychosocial response to survivors of trafficking

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Rajul Jain, Legal Research Officer,  Shakti Vahini

The survivors of trafficking undergo various forms of torture and force which have great impact on their physical and mental well being. Even in the absence of any physical assault the mere fact of being trafficked and being put in situations where they are treated with attitudes that cultivates inferiority complex is seen to impair their mental health. Trafficking which may happen for a variety of purposes often uses methods such as starvation, verbal abuse, sexual harassment and assault as pressure tactics to obtain the victim to submit to the exploitation. It therefore becomes very important, that all those who come in contact with the survivors of trafficking post rescue or in any other way be receptive to their needs  and look upon them with the dignity and sensitivity that they should be given. Here are some pointers that should be kept in mind by the various stakeholders.

The survivors of trafficking have the following key rights that should form the basis of your first response:

  1. The right to be treated with dignity
  2. The right to feel safe and not to be harmed
  3. The right to have information regarding what is going to happen next
  4. The right to have access to resources like food, clothes and shelter
  5. The right not be re traumatised
  6. The right not to be criminalized

Respecting the basic rights of the survivors does not require resources but it requires the right attitude.

Interacting with survivors:

  1. Introduce yourself- Tell her your name, rank and the objective of your interaction.
  2. Address the person with respect and politely. This would help in building trust and mutual respect.
  3. Seek permission of the survivor. You should seek permission of the survivor to begin the conversation, invite another person to join the conversation or to end the conversation. Behaving so would make the survivor feel as an equal to the person counselling and give an opportunity to feel in control of her life. Questions or conversations should not be forced upon the survivor in case he/she is not ready.
  4. Validate her anger and fear- Validation is a skill of communication. It involves letting the survivor know that her feelings are justified. It helps build trust between you and the survivor. Everyone has a right to his or her feelings.
  5. Usually the survivor of trafficking as misled with promises of marriage, job etc. Therefore, it is normal for them to show mistrust and unwillingness to talk to the counsellor. It should be taken as normal and responded with politeness commanding respect and exhibiting patience. The survivor will gradually come around.
  6. In case where the survivors of trafficking have been duped by the trafficker with false promises, the survivors are often treated harshly and even made to feel like an accused or equal contributor to the crime. This approach should be strictly prohibited. They are victims of misrepresentation and need mental support and assurance even more.
  7. The NGOs/ police officers/ any other person involved in the rescue should actively take care of the needs of the survivor. The needs like providing timely meals, adequate clothing, and sanitation facilities should not be overlooked or the survivor deprived of them.
  8. The survivor must be reassured against any further exploitation.
  9. Ensure segregation of the survivor from the exploiter. Also ensure that the exploiter is not able to threaten the survivor or come in contact with him/her which may adversely affect them.
  10. Ask them, from whom they perceive risk to themselves.
  11. Make a list of significant people regarding whose safety the survivor is worried.
  12. Reassure them that no one amongst the people who have hurt them or who make them feel afraid can reach them.
  13. Where a number of survivors are rescued you should keep a watch on interactions between the survivors.
  14.  Look out for change of behaviour, isolation of some of the survivors or one of the survivors taking charge of all of the others, as all these could be indicators of the survivors’ safety being compromised.
  15. Remember, it may be possible for the survivor to directly go to the place of safety for the night, rather than going to the police station.
  16.  During rescue operations the mobile phone may be used by the traffickers to reach and threaten the victims. The merits of unsupervised access to phone during the immediate circumstances of rescue should be reviewed on a case to case basis.
  17. The survivors have a right to have full information on what is happening around them. They should be informed as such.
  18. Before taking each person for medical examination inform the person about the reason and nature of the medical examination. Tell them that they have a choice not to undergo tests if they do not want to.
  19. It is normally believed by the investigators that if the survivor is herself the complainant the evidence becomes more credible. However, this needs to be weighed against the fact that if the survivor were to be the complainant, her life and her healing process would have to wait for the closure of the case. She would be reminded of her traumatic experiences for a long time after the rescue. She would also remain under the threat from traffickers, as they might try to subvert the cause of justice by threatening her. There are many other possible people who can be complainants in the FIR. The list of these people is outlined in the standard operating protocols for the police published in this series by UNODC.
  20. Do not force the survivor to be a witness.
  21. It is important that information regarding her family background, circumstances in which she was trafficked, modes of transit and people involved in trafficking, exploitation faced etc., be collected while interviewing the survivor. However, the same should be done in a non intrusive manner.
  22. The survivor should not be made promises that can’t be fulfilled. They should not be given statements which may fall flat; this will further damage their trusting ability and can have an impact graver than we think. However, they should be made aware of their rights and what they can possibly do in future.
  23. The survivor should not be interviewed repeatedly by different persons. Also while interviewing them make sure to show some understanding and sympathy. Hopping from one question to another or asking painful details of the exploitation may harm the survivor.
  24. Before interviewing a survivor go through available documents so that the survivor does not have to narrate any traumatic details again and again.

 The points discussed above are some very basic guidelines that should be kept in mind while interacting/interviewing the survivors of trafficking at any stage.

 Documents referred to:

  1. Journey to Justice- Manual on Psychosocial Intervention, UNODC, 2008

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